Ted Demme

Ted Demme

Born in New York City, Demme was raised in nearby Rockville Centre, Long Island, where he grew up under the shadow of his director uncle, Jonathan Demme. But his ambitions were skewed toward sports, having grown up harboring dreams of becoming a football player as well as a coach and physical education teacher until a 285-pound guy destroyed his knee halfway during his freshman year at the State University of New York, Cortland. To make up for the devastating blow, Demme began doing play-by-play and color commentary for games on the college station WSUC-FM, which soon led to local television and making short films, with his dream of being a football coach quickly fading from mind. Beginning as a production assistant at MTV in 1986, Demme advanced to senior producer and became creator-producer of "Yo! MTV Raps" (1988-1995), a show that almost singlehandedly popularized hip-hop music. Demme also directed rock videos for such varied artists as Salt-N-Pepa, House of Pain, Henry Rollins and Bruce Springsteen, as well as co-directing "MTV's 10th Anniversary Special" (1991) and "Rock the Vote" (Fox, 1992). Also at the time, Demme directed a series of famed black-and-white interstitials with a chain-smoking Denis Leary rhapsodizing on topics like racism, politics and plugging the "MTV Music Awards." Meanwhile, he made first venture into filmmaking with "The Bet" (1992), a short-form drama about two brothers running a New York deli that won awards at film festivals in Aspen and Houston. Shifting to features, Demme made his debut with "Who's the Man?" (1993), a broad comedy starring MTV co-hosts Doctor Dre and Ed Lover that was loaded with cameos from the world of hip-hop and played like a road show version of "Yo! MTV Raps." After helming the acerbic one-man show "Denis Leary: No Cure for Cancer" (Showtime, 1993) and an episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC, 1993-2000), Demme directed his first high-profile feature, "The Ref" (1994), a caustic comedy about a burglar (Leary) who takes an extremely argumentative and distant couple (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey) hostage during their Christmas party. The film earned favorable reviews despite some lapse in logic born in the editing room, though its incongruous spring release for a holiday movie ultimately hurt its box office chances.Demme moved on to his next outing, "Beautiful Girls" (1996), a sharply observed slice-of-life buddy comedy about the continuity of small-town, working-class existence. The ensemble piece boasted an impressive cast that included Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly, Rosie O'Donnell, Timothy Hutton, Uma Thurman and a St. Bernard billed as "Elle Macpherson," while a young Natalie Portman copped the best buzz for her scene-stealing turn as Hutton's precocious 13-year-old neighbor. But once again, Demme's efforts were largely ignored by the movie-going public despite positive reviews. Moving back to television, he was one of several established directors to helm an episode of the anthology series, "Gun" (ABC, 1997), which related the stories of various people who come into possession of a high-caliber handgun. Demme also directed the "Manhattan Miracle" segment of "Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground" (HBO, 1997), which teamed him with uncle and executive producer Jonathan Demme, before reuniting with his old friend for "Denis Leary: Lock 'n' Load" (HBO). Along with former MTV co-worker and production company partner Joel Stillerman, Demme attained his first feature producing credit on John Dahl's "Rounders" (1998), which followed an ex-gambler (Matt Damon) who re-enters the underground poker scene to help a friend (Edward Norton) pay off a loan shark.Turning away from comedy to more dramatic fare, Demme executive produced and directed "Monument Ave" (1998), a powerful and ultimately sorrowful meditation on misplaced loyalties and Robin Hood sensibilities. The film starred Denis Leary as a quick-tempered car thief who tries staying loyal to his Irish cousin (Jason Barry) while contending with a violent local boss (Colm Meaney). "Monument Avenue" featured one of Leary's best performances onscreen while representing another excellent, character-driven ensemble piece for the director. Demme picked up his first Emmy as one of the executive producers of "A Lesson Before Dying" (HBO, 1999), which focused on a young black man (Mekhi Phifer) learning a life lesson from a dedicated teacher (Don Cheadle) before being put to death for a crime he did not commit. After executive producing Gavin O'Connor's gemlike coming-of-age drama "Tumbleweeds" (1999), Demme had a commercial and critical misfire with the Eddie Murphy-Martin Lawrence period prison comedy "Life" (1999). Demme next served as a creative consultant and executive producer on the short-lived series "Action" (Fox, 1999) before helming what would ultimately prove to be his last feature, "Blow" (2001) which profiled real-life cocaine dealer George Jung (Johnny Depp). The film was criticized in some circles for its sympathetic depiction of a drug smuggler. But such criticisms were couched on Jan. 13, 2002, when Demme collapsed and died from a heart attack while playing basketball in a charity tournament. He was just 38 years old. An autopsy revealed later that a small amount of cocaine was found in his system which doctors concluded may have contributed to the heart failure. At the time, Demme was working on the documentary "A Decade Under the Influence" (2003), which explored the Second Golden Age of Hollywood during the 1970s, which gave rise to the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Paul Schrader and Francis Ford Coppola. Writer Richard LaGravenese earned co-director credit after taking the reigns following Demme's untimely demise.